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Kansas Senate gives final OK to bill that could lessen service standards for phone companies

  • Eagle Topeka Bureau
  • Published Thursday, April 4, 2013, at 7:05 p.m.

— The state Senate gave its final OK Thursday to a bill written by AT&T that frees the company and some other telecommunications providers from having to comply with minimum quality of service standards.

In addition, the companies would no longer have to provide landline service to all the customers in their coverage areas or serve poor customers who qualify for Lifeline subsidies.

The bill, House Bill 2201, also reduces the Kansas Corporation Commission’s role in adjudicating consumers’ complaints of fraud and other abusive practices.

While the amended bill grants the KCC authority to “administer” and “investigate” consumer complaints, it is unclear whether the commission retains authority to take action on them.

Thursday’s 37-3 vote approved the final version of the bill that passed out of a House-Senate conference committee.

The conference bill now returns to the House, where it originally passed 118-1 and where final approval is expected.

David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents consumers and small businesses, has been harshly critical of the bill.

He said it’s not clear whether the KCC could still order a company to cease an abusive practice or would have to refer the customer to the Attorney General’s Office or the Federal Communications Commission in Washington.

A more strongly worded consumer-protection amendment proposed for the bill was replaced with an amendment written by AT&T.

Springe said the bill is primarily a license for AT&T to abandon rural and poor phone customers, who are harder to serve and less profitable for the company than customers who buy more expensive service bundles.

AT&T officials have denied they plan to abandon those customers, although they’ve indicated they may require some to give up their landlines in favor of wireless services.

Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg and chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee, carried the bill on the Senate floor.

He has said the bill is a necessary step in the evolution of AT&T from a regulated monopoly utility to an unregulated company that provides a variety of services, including Internet access and TV.

Apple has said that competition – the ability to switch companies – will provide the main remaining protection for consumers.

Reach Dion Lefler at 785-296-3006 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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